Monday, January 28, 2013

What Makes a Great Walking City?

The 24 Hour Downtown

Downtowns can evolve into even more desirable, resilient places by extending the daily “life cycle” beyond the 8-hour day of the typical
shopping center, main street, or office park. Some downtown districts are already 16-hour places, featuring both retail and entertainment uses that remain active during evening hours.

Beyond the 8- and 16-hour downtown is a place that remains active throughout the day and night: the “24-hour downtown.” These downtowns can remain active with an array of residential, employment, cultural and shopping opportunities which build on their strengths.

The 24-hour downtown has:

  • Mixed Use. 24-hour districts are created by placing uses with different hours of peak activity in close proximity.
  • A Network of Destinations. A network of pedestrian-friendly streets and open spaces links a diversity of cultural, commercial and residential destinations.
  • A Complete Community. Residents and businesses take ownership of districts within their downtowns, making them safer places with stronger identities. This attracts a population that is diverse in age, income, backgrounds, and culture.
  • Services. A range of services to accommodate a variety of populations: residents, employees, visitors.
  •  Resilient. Downtowns with a wide range of activities are more resilient in surviving a downturn in the office, retail or housing market.
In seasonal areas, the 24-hour downtown can also provide the setting for establishing a year-round 12-month downtown. By attracting a broad array of activities and types of housing, downtowns can remain active throughout the year, even during nonseasonal months. This means offering housing desirable to full-time residents, strengthening and diversifying the downtown office market, and serving both regional and neighborhood shopping needs.

The Downtown Core

Many downtown districts begin with a single defined center or “core” that provides a focus for all of the uses that occur downtown: civic,
commerce, employment, arts, entertainment and others. Sometimes a single intersection or block can be commonly identified as the center of the downtown.

However, many downtowns (particularly larger downtowns) grow successfully by developing multiple centers. This occurs as a downtown grows and various specialized uses concentrate in locations that are within the downtown district, but not at the traditionally-defined core.

These multiple centers, or sub-centers, benefit by being within proximity to the full range of downtown uses, but derive further benefit by
concentrating near other similar uses. Examples include:

  • Retail centers, where stores cluster together to allow comparison shopping;
  • Employment centers, where specialized employment businesses (such a financial services) cluster together with businesses that provide supporting services;
  • Entertainment centers, where complementary uses such as restaurants and nightclubs cluster;
  • Arts centers, where galleries and supporting services cluster;
  • Medical centers, typically anchored by a significant medical facility, surrounded by supporting uses.

Multiple Centers

Over time, the center of a downtown may shift from its original location, and in some cities certain uses may relocate outside of the downtown to new centers many miles away. For example, a generation ago retail uses left the centers of many U.S. cities to relocate to outlying shopping malls. This often had the effect of moving a city’s center of commerce away from a downtown.

To respond to the shifting center phenomenon, downtowns have had to adapt and reorient themselves to compete with outlying centers.
Some downtowns have chosen to focus on cultural and entertainment uses that are unique to downtown and difficult to duplicate elsewhere.  Other downtowns have managed to bring back some of the uses that had previously migrated with competitive developments such as downtown retail centers and mixed use projects. Ironically, as downtowns have been successful in attracting and retaining businesses, outlying centers have begun to reposition themselves by developing projects that emulate a main street-style environment. Undoubtedly, the competitive nature of retail and business centers on a regional level is a factor that nearly every downtown district needs to contend with.  

Creating a mix of uses for downtown success

Creating a mixture of Retail, Cultural, Employment, Residential, Entertainment and Civic uses is crucial to the long-term success of a
downtown. Attracting and retaining a broad array of activities will widen the appeal of downtown while strengthening the city’s tax base.
Based upon market forces and city efforts, mixed use development can take place in many forms including:

“Vertical Mixed Use:” residences, hotels, or offices are provided over ground-floor shops and services. The benefits of vertical mixed use include: greater foot traffic to support retail and entertainment uses, increased opportunity to live close to work and amenities, a more
continuous streetscape between blocks, and residential “eyes on the street” at times of the day when ground floor retail uses are reduced.

“Horizontal Mixed Use:” different uses are accommodated within proximity to each other, but in separate buildings. This separation of
activities is often the result of the varying service requirements of different uses, ownership patterns, or development strategies. A horizontal mix of uses does not create the same variety of activity as vertical mixed-use, and if not designed carefully uses may not feel
related to each other. However, if well designed, horizontal mixed use can achieve many of the objectives of mixed use, in a less complex
development format. Smaller scale buildings and uses within shorter block lengths and an inter-connected street network are also important because they encourage pedestrian movement on streets between different uses.  With an appropriate mix of uses and climate-sensitive street design, streets can be kept alive 24 hours of the day, creating a vital and active downtown.

A “back-to-the-city” trend is energizing the housing market in many cities

The demand for housing in downtown areas is on a strong upswing in many American cities. City dwellers tend to value neighborhood
vibrancy and diversity, the accessibility of restaurants and cultural attractions, and the proximity to employment.  Who are the people moving into cities? They tend to be single professionals, couples without children, and empty nesters, according to both popular wisdom and sales activity for new housing developments in downtown areas. Although many people consider the urban infill housing market to be a niche market, studies show that, nationwide, demographic categories attracted to city living are growing strongly.

The groups growing the fastest, people in their mid-20’s and empty nesters in their 50’s, are the groups most likely to look for an alternative to low-density, single-family housing.  Downtown housing comes in many shapes and forms. Choices may include apartments and condominiums as well as lofts, townhomes (see bottom left photo on this page), patio homes, and live/work (see bottom right photo). Developments may be large scale projects with dozens of units and numerous amenities or could be small infill projects with just a handful of units. Other trends such as hotels with residential components are emerging.

Key to successful downtown living is having the services on hand that residents need daily. Markets, cleaners, and casual dining within
convenient distance are vital for ensuring that downtown residential areas become neighborhoods. Mixed use projects can help in this
regard; many downtowns now feature newly built residences situated over supermarkets and retail centers.

Good design is important to the success of any downtown district

Downtown destinations draw visitors from across a region, infusing foot traffic and revenue into a city. The design of a downtown center or district can determine both its success as a destination and as a place to live, work and visit. Key design principles for creating successful downtown destinations include:

Be a Good Neighbor. Streets become lively and interesting when store windows, residences, and key building entrances face outwards towards sidewalks, parks and squares. Landmarks can be created by placing memorable signage and building features in strategic locations such as the end of a major street or a major intersection.

Not Just Retail. When residences, offices, entertainment venues, and community facilities are situated above or alongside retail shops, it
creates a round the clock mix of uses — a 24-hour downtown. 

Create Unique Anchors. Retail is a vital component of downtowns, but when it comes to retail, traditional mall “anchors,” such as department stores, increasingly are no longer enough to draw shoppers. Arts centers, public spaces, and unique entertainment venues are needed for a complete, more sustainable attraction.

Meet Parking Needs Strategically. When parking is placed behind buildings, within structures that are not fully visible from the sidewalk or along less traveled streets, then sidewalks are more attractive and convenient to pedestrians. Well-located, centralized parking facilities allow people to park once, then proceed to numerous downtown destinations in the same trip. Ultimately “mobility” is improved for everyone.

Downtown open space as a focus for downtown

Quality open spaces are the potential focal points for successful downtowns, not only as vital gathering spaces, but also as the continuous
threads that strive to weave the entire downtown together.  Open spaces can take many forms within a downtown:

  • Boulevards with wide sidewalks and tree-lined medians, for people to walk along, or to sit and have lunch.
  • Large Parks and Squares for fairs, farmers’ markets, concerts, picnics, exhibitions, forums, movies, art sales/exhibitions, children’s activities.
  • Plazas with seating for people to have lunch and take a break from shopping, or with fountains and tot-lots for children to play after school.
  • Pocket Parks tucked into small spaces, to offer a respite within downtown
  • Promenades and Riverwalks for walkers, joggers and bicyclists or for a few moments of relaxation.

For a downtown open space to be successful, it should be accessible and recognizable, in that it is within the daily travel paths of people
rather than being secluded or enclosed within private spaces or buildings. It can function as a meeting place: “let’s meet at the plaza.”
An open space should also be environmentally sensitive. Open spaces that offer protection from the elements can create intimate, comfortable spaces for daily travel, socializing, shopping, entertainment, and play. Key features include abundant landscaping, shading devices such as canopies, trellises and umbrellas, and enclosure by surrounding buildings.

Multi-use open spaces for downtown

Downtown open spaces are unique in that they provide the setting for a range of activities and occasions. Successful open spaces themselves can even provide a reason for people to come to downtown.  For a downtown open space to be successful, it should be:
Safe and Versatile. A variety of uses with different peaks of activity looking out onto open spaces (e.g., offices in the day, nightclubs and
cinemas at night, farmers’ market on the weekend) can keep them well used and safe day and night.

Available to All. While open spaces can be energized by adjacent uses such as sidewalk cafes, private uses should not be able to completely control the space to the exclusion of others. In a truly public open space, people should be able to enjoy visiting an open space without needing to purchase goods.

Be usable for a range of activities. While an open space cannot be expected to accommodate every possible activity or occasion, open
spaces taken together through a downtown should be usable for a range of people and activities beyond passive enjoyment. Children’s
activities and play, concerts, art shows, and festivals are functions that can energize an open space and bring people downtown.

Making it easier to get around downtown

Connectivity is the key to linking a downtown’s destinations to each other, and to the rest of the city and region. Providing convenient,
comfortable connections for pedestrians, transit riders, drivers, and bicyclists will increase the attraction of downtown and bring it closer
to becoming a truly great place. This is achieved by:

Creating “multi-modal” mobility. Streets accommodate all types, or “modes” of travel. Streets can be designed or retrofitted to ensure pedestrian comfort throughout the year and accommodate rapid transit and bicycles.

Creating a hierarchy of connections. A well-connected downtown features three layers of mobility:

  1. Convenient connections to the surrounding region;
  2. Active streets linking downtown’s most important destinations; and
  3. A rich network of secondary streets linking less intensive destinations to key streets.

For a successful downtown, it is important to balance the needs of the transportation modes, since most people switch modes at least once
during a visit. For example, a person may drive or take transit downtown, proceed on foot to their office, and later take a bus or trolley to a

Transportation Demand Management. Successful downtowns inevitably generate high volumes of traffic. Different travel modes require different amounts of space (including both streets and parking) and have varying impacts on the quality of the downtown experience. Successful cities have strived to reduce auto trips to downtown destinations while still increasing the overall number of trips into downtown.

Within downtowns, cities have strived to reduce internal auto trips by making it easier for people to get around downtown by walking or taking local-serving transit such as trolleys.

Great downtowns are shaped over time by local traditions, cultural ambition and economic dynamism. The essence of “greatness” is difficult to identify and cannot be distilled into a set of simple ingredients.

However, certain characteristics are apparent in nearly all great downtowns. These places are:

Active with Variety. Great downtowns are alive throughout the day and evening, fueled by an array of housing, employment opportunities, shopping and civic activities. Critical to sustaining this energy is a range of housing and jobs responsive to the needs of a diverse and changing population.

Shaped by unique local history, culture and skill. The buildings, public spaces and sidewalks of great downtowns reflect the unique
ambitions and stories of a city. Downtowns can be as unique as the cities they serve, with an eclectic mixture of people and economic and
cultural activities that are particular to a given downtown.  

Open and Inclusive. Great downtowns offer something for everyone, attracting people of all ages and backgrounds. Sub-districts within a great downtown often appeal to different lifestyles and tastes.  

Public Investment. Great downtowns are often facilitated with public investment such as streetscapes, infrastructure, and transportation.
Defined by Great Public Spaces. Great downtowns feature a sequence of attractive public spaces including both central gathering places and a series of smaller, intimate spaces for daily relaxation.

Environmentally Appropriate. The buildings and spaces are appropriate for their respective climate and environment.

Legible and Well Designed. Like a great book, a great downtown is easy to “read” or comprehend: Key destinations and important streets are obvious to visitors and residents alike.

Provided by Donna Antonucci
Prudential Castle Point Realty